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While in Johannesburg, the report of a zebra running amok in the Alipur zoo caught my attention. Here I was in the beautiful green country of South Africa, looking at zebras, lions, antelopes and multi-coloured birds under a bright blue sky, being suddenly reminded of the hideous conditions in which animals are kept in the zoo in my city. Wherever I travelled in South Africa, there were havens for birds and animals that created a sense of sheer excitement in us, human visitors. I don’t think I can be blamed for feeling miserable at the thought of the lions and tigers pacing up and down in their pathetic little cages in the Alipur zoo.

If you look around in South Africa, you will realize that they have taken the love and care of wildlife and nature to a whole new level. They are also catching them very young. On weekends, whole families flock to the zoos, game-parks, aquariums, aviaries, sanctuaries and botanical gardens that are in magnificent abundance throughout the land. The clever and attractive layout of the gardens and animal parks can be so easily replicated with some imagination, while the interactive reader-friendly displays amused and informed children and adults alike. Child-friendly notices explained why people should not tap on the glass (“the creatures behind them are extremely sensitive”) or why they should not be fed (“their digestive systems are delicate and they could fall sick or even die”). The resultant understanding and consideration are so very important because it created an affinity between humans and animals.

For me it was a novel experience to move among all kinds of creatures. I found a tiny marmoset staring at me from a bough just above my head and I nearly stepped on a large and colourful iguana which was stretched across the path in front. Its bearded, soulful mien made it look somewhat philosophical as it surveyed the world. A myriad birds flitted and flapped fearlessly around us — each sporting a more resplendent plumage than the last. This aura of intimacy brought home to me very sharply the disconnection that exists between our urban children and the wonders of nature.

It is true that we have made some headway in making our children more “environmentally aware”. Most schools boast of nature clubs while Environmental Studies was briefly introduced as a compulsory subject in board exams and at the undergraduate level. Today, any schoolchild will tell you about the threats of global warming, pollution and the significance of a balanced eco-system. Yet, I suspect that, like many other things, the learning is largely theoretical — we have not been able to instil in our young a genuine love of nature.

The elections in South Africa and the penultimate phase of the Indian elections took place at the same time. I found that the young were taught to value democracy and the hard-earned right to vote through a study of their remarkable recent history. Understandably, Nelson Mandela — or Madiba, as he is commonly called — is widely worshipped and South Africans have a general pride in their beautiful land. However, corruption is a great concern and there was open criticism of the current president, Jacob Zuma, who had won yet again. I watched a very powerful play on the theme of corruption called The Mother of All Eating. (At the rate things are going, such a play may not have been allowed to be staged back home.) It was good to see a notice saying “No Entry After Start”, and I observed that nobody did enter after the play began.

Talking of notices and signboards, one is worth mentioning. In all the hundreds of miles we drove, along smooth roads and highways, I came across just one pot-hole and a notice-board warned us in advance — “Pot-hole Ahead”. Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was that, in South Africa, there was no pressure to be politically correct. Terms such as black, coloured (of mixed descent), deaf or blind were used freely — simply to convey what they meant. I have always felt that the need to teach children to use the latest “acceptable terms” is somewhat artificial and contrived. If the attitude towards “different” people is healthy, why should we make children conscious about being “correct” and tell them not to use terms that are simply factual and in no way rude? Of course, they should be made aware that not being able to speak and being “dumb” are not the same thing. But I think it is preferable to describe a person as “short” rather than “vertically challenged”.

Generally, I found South Africans extremely courteous and pleasant. They always greeted you with a ready smile whether they knew you or not. Sadly, we do not have this culture back home. In school, students wish their teachers — somewhat mechanically — “Good morning/afternoon/evening”, depending on the time of the day, but socially I am not too sure about the way our children greet people. Either they have to be prompted by adults to say Namaste or “Hi!” or they don’t say anything at all. In Redhill, the first of the two schools I visited, the students had impeccable manners and greeted me unselfconsciously. The co-ed school had been established as a girls’ school in 1907 and now it is considered the ultimate school to go to if you wish to be a leader of your times. I read in their centenary book that the school had been criticized by newspapers for getting their uniform designed by Dior, thereby encouraging high fashion among its students. The headmaster, Andrew Baker, a handsome affable man who gave me a tour of the dream campus, seemed extremely proud of his school and the expansion projects he had undertaken. He confessed that he had done some “snooping” on me and had a print-out from the net to facilitate our interface. Technology was very high on Baker’s priorities but I noticed that he stopped to appeal to the girls and boys who were enjoying their mid-morning break to “leave their devices and communicate with each other instead”. An interesting feature of the school was that they had deliberately discarded the “prefect system”. The entire matric class (our Class XI) was entrusted with various responsibilities through their societies and clubs. That set me thinking about student government and the best way to instil lessons of leadership and citizenship through a democratic process. Surely, we do not want our student leaders to just give orders and assist the school authorities to maintain discipline? It was time we reviewed our antiquated “school prefect” and “class monitor” system.

Crawford Preparatory, the other school I visited, was similar to Redhill in its up-market exclusivity — the Who’s Who of Johannesburg sent their children to these schools. Even then they seemed different. Crawford students did not have a uniform — they had a “multiform”. This meant that they could mix and match their school clothes within a set of given options. It was an attempt, they proclaimed, to allow a freedom of expression “within acceptable boundaries”. When I shared this later with a colleague who is an alumna of our school, she said that they had had a similar freedom. In her time, seniors were given an option of wearing a skirt and blouse, salwar kameez or sari but they didn’t call it a multiform.

Derek Suttie did not match my mental image of an elitist school principal. He told me that there was a huge demand for school heads across the globe and he had taught in Spain, the United Kingdom and Brazil. His thinking was refreshingly different and I enjoyed listening to him. He was equally interested in what we were doing in our schools in Calcutta. Incidentally, most people I met in South Africa did not know the existence of our city. An exception was Georgina, a wealthy woman with a striking appearance. “My saint is from there!” she exclaimed, when she heard that I was from Calcutta. At the Johannesburg airport, a man with two sniffer dogs asked, “Isn’t Calcutta the place where they crucified Christ?” I hastened to explain to him that the ‘place’ he was referring to was Golgotha. What with the insult of insignificance in the larger world, our city did not need unjustified ignominy added to the list of abuses it has to bear.

I discovered that Gandhi was well-known and revered, Hindi films were popular and cricket was an obsession. The IPL matches were being telecast daily on their sports channel. But Suttie stuck to educational matters. He was currently committed to strengthening the “Thinking Schools” movement. Appropriately, the academic philosophy of his school was “Think, understand, apply”. He was about to introduce “P4C” in his school which turned out to be “philosophy for children”. The strategy was to put up a single question for every child to reflect upon. Interesting responses would then be collected, shared and discussed. When I asked for a sample question, he came up with “Do dogs know that they are dogs?” I was quite fascinated by the idea of getting even very young children to think about open-ended issues that had nothing to do with a prescribed syllabus.

Both the schools had dedicated spaces and studios for different forms of art. They are really big on art, craft and sculpture in South Africa. Stellenbosch, the incredibly beautiful university town, had some curious works of art in public space — interactive installations, benches crafted for you to sit on and to tell you a story at the same time. People were encouraged to touch, feel and engage with these works. I regret that I had not visited an “ordinary” school, but from my conversations I gathered that people were unhappy that equality of opportunity in education had not been achieved even after 20 years. Of course, I felt guilty about our own state of affairs after 67 years. But I also felt happy when I discovered a tremendous advantage we did have in India. Books are far, far more affordable.